Um, it fixed itself? Yeah, that must be it!

Flashback to the early 1980s, when this pilot fish is working for a government agency that has lots of fences, guards, badges and multiple doors you have to pass through before you can enter a building.

"This being a place that held sensitive information, all equipment had to meet Tempest standards against any radiation that would allow Van Eck phreaking, or extracting data from electromagnetic radiation from computers, components or peripherals," says fish.

"So whenever anything broke down, the box could not be opened locally. Instead, it had to be specially packed and sent via classified courier to a repair depot in Texas. And as so often happens with federal processes and procedures, the repair depot became a black hole from which repaired systems never seemed to emerge."

That's just an annoyance until the day that one of the daisy wheel printers in the office stops working.

Two other printers failed previously, and disappeared into the black hole at the repair depot. But they can't be replaced because they're still shown as being in the equipment inventory.

That left two printers -- and with one of them out of commission, only one printer remains for the entire staff.

Fish has seen exactly this problem before, because he used to service word processors before getting a job at the agency. The "Tempest certified" printer is just a stock daisy wheel printer in a special enclosure. Other than that, it's off-the-shelf hardware.

Fish reports the dead printer to the office director. "Tell you what," fish says, "let me have a look at it."

OK, director says. But before fish does, he heads out to a local electronics store and spends $1.25 for a driver transistor. Then he returns to the office with a soldering kit in his pocket, goes into the room with the printer and closes the door.

Twenty minutes later he emerges and reports to the director: "The printer is working again."

"What'd you do?" director asks.

"It's best if you don't ask," fish replies. He holds up the transistor he replaced. "I'm not saying I did anything, but I can point out an interesting fact: One of these little things costs a buck and a quarter at the parts store. Compare that with the cost of couriering the equipment to Texas and losing another printer. I'm speaking hypothetically, of course!"

Sharky wants something the local Radio Shack doesn't have: True tales of IT life. Send yours to me at sharky@computerworld.com. You'll get a stylish Shark shirt if I use it. Add your comments below, and read some great old tales in the Sharkives.

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